• Tue. Mar 2nd, 2021

Poll Watchers Endure, Minus the Partisan Drama


Oct 31, 2020

WASHINGTON — Amid the clamor of President Trump’s continuing demands for his supporters to look out for fraud at polling places, it is easy to overlook the fact that in many polling places, someone already is keeping watch.

And in most of those cases, they are not fighting fraud so much as the urge to nod off.

“If you’re the type of person who likes to talk to people, do not apply for this job,” said Jane Whitley, the Democratic Party chair in Mecklenburg County, N.C., home to Charlotte. “You will be bored out of your mind.”

The job is poll monitor, also known as poll observer, poll watcher and poll challenger. It is not the self-appointed position of election-integrity enforcer that some expect militia members and political operatives to assume outside some polling places on Tuesday. Nor is it the job of workers inside the polling places who greet voters and check their eligibility before clearing them to enter the voting booth.



Trump’s Campaign Is Building an Army of Poll Watchers. What Can They Actually Do?

President Trump and his campaign have been calling for an army of poll watchers on Election Day. What is poll watching, and when does it cross the line? We look at how a federal consent decree restricted the Republican Party for decades, and why its expiration could make a difference in 2020.

This year, as the president has been talking about— “Fraud like you’ve never seen. They have these fake ballots. They’re trying to rig an election, and we can’t let that happen. I hope you’re all going to be poll watchers.” “His language has taken on an almost militaristic tone.” “Go into the polls and watch very carefully. Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do.” There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in U.S. elections. Still, the president talks about recruiting an army of poll watchers. “It’s taken on such an aggressive nature in a way that we’ve kind of never seen before. It’s very frightening to election officials.” “It paints poll watching with a veneer of antagonism, combat and not in the spirit of protecting our elections.” But it’s more than just rhetoric. This year, the Republican Party can throw its full weight behind the president’s poll watching operations in ways we haven’t seen for nearly 40 years. To understand why, let’s take a trip back in time — “Wherever I go, people ask me what a New Jersey vacation is like” — to a governor’s race in New Jersey in 1981. “When I ran in that election, it was a very interesting election, to say the least.” This was the Democratic candidate James Florio. And here he is now. “That’s a long time ago, that’s 40 years ago.” The race was an early referendum on the Reagan administration. “I like Tom Kean.” “Kean has endorsed Reaganomics and proposed cuts in state taxes on business. The Democratic candidate, Congressman James Florio, attacks both Reagan’s and Kean’s economic plan.” “We thought it would be an election on the merits of the issues” — “revitalizing our railroads, cleaning up toxic waste, strengthening law enforcement” — “turned out that was not all involving the merits.” It was the closest fought election in the history of the state. But as it turns out, it wasn’t a clean fight. “Election day yielded some surprises to a lot of people who went to the polls because people saw off duty policemen with armbands that said ‘members of the Ballot Security Task Force.’” “That’s the Republican group, which according to state Democrats, intimidated some minority voters.” “It looked very official. And they were standing there with their guns.” “They obstructed voters from casting ballots. But also they obstructed access by poll workers.” More than 200 task force members showed up at the polls, confronting voters in Democratic strongholds. They were in Newark but not in Short Hills. They were in Trenton but not Princeton. And Camden but not in Cherry Hill. “If you look at the demographics of the neighborhoods that were targeted for these efforts, they were all predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods. White voters were not targeted in the same way at all.” “So it was clear that they’re not concerned about ballot integrity. They’re concerned about intimidation. It was a very clever, sinister initiative.” In the end, Florio lost by a razor thin margin. “1,797 votes out of 2.3 million votes. The intimidation had an impact on the outcome of the election.” “It’s a case of sour grapes from Democrats that don’t know how to take defeat.” But this wasn’t just a local effort. Investigations suggested that the task force was organized and paid for by the Republican National Committee. “A covert operation that was at the very least intentionally misleading and resulted in technical violations of our election laws.” Democrats sued the R.N.C. for violating the Voting Rights Act. The R.N.C. was forced to enter into a federal consent decree that would restrict them for years to come. “For the better part of the past four decades, the Republican National Party has been under a consent decree that has limited their ability to coordinate some of these poll watching activities.” “So it created a mechanism that deterred any additional voter intimidation and also created a check on future R.N.C. efforts that might target minority communities.” Under the terms of the consent decree, the R.N.C. had to get court approval for poll watching plans. The party tried unsuccessfully to get out of it for many years. “And they were found to be in violation of the consent decree at least three times since it was put into place.” Then in 2017, the court allowed the consent decree to expire, setting up a different kind of fight in 2020. “This will be the first presidential election where we will see the Republican National Party operating a poll watching operation without the consent decree hovering over their heads. Now that it has been lifted, it looks like there is going to be a more organized and a bigger poll watching operation coming out of the Republican National Party.” Republicans say they’re training more than 50,000 poll watchers in at least 15 battleground states. They’ve released a series of carefully worded training presentations for volunteers. “Poll watchers are the first line of defense for President Trump. Be courteous to county staff and other watchers. Yes, even our Democrat friends. Do not speak with voters and do not interfere with the orderly conduct of the voting process.” Their presence at the polls is perfectly legal if they follow the rules. In early voting this year, there have been a few potential violations. Pennsylvania’s attorney general called out illegal surveillance of a ballot dropbox in Philadelphia. And local news in Florida reported on two armed private security guards who posted themselves near an early voting site. “Two armed security guards showed up outside of the downtown St. Pete early voting location.” “Pretty much ever since the president has been calling on his supporters to watch the polls, election officials and law enforcement agencies across the country have kind of been preparing for what may be an influx of people who don’t know the rules and regulations of poll watching.” In a statement, the R.N.C. said its poll watchers have received rigorous training to follow state laws and are not there to be intimidating. “The big unknown is exactly how big and how widespread the deployment of these poll watchers will be and whether they will have any kind of marching orders from the Republican Party or the Trump campaign to really question a bunch of voters’ eligibility or whether they’ll just kind of follow the more traditional ways.” Ultimately, the consent decree offered a legal shortcut to stop the R.N.C.’s poll watching operations if they crossed the line. “What’s important to keep in mind is that the tactics that were unlawful in 1980 are just as unlawful in 2020. There has never been permission for any political party or any private party to engage in racially targeted voter intimidation or voter intimidation of any sort. And so we’re not without protection. We’re not without tools to combat it. But we do have one less in our arsenal.” “If we see a resumption of the same type of thing this time, we’ll have to go back to court. I can be authoritatively the person that can be definitive and say that small margins make a big difference.”

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President Trump and his campaign have been calling for an army of poll watchers on Election Day. What is poll watching, and when does it cross the line? We look at how a federal consent decree restricted the Republican Party for decades, and why its expiration could make a difference in 2020.

Rather, this is a task performed by ordinary citizens, often volunteers, whose job is to sit quietly in polling places, making sure that voting machines are in order, no one gets rowdy and balloting proceeds without political chicanery. By any name, it has long been an integral part of the nation’s election machinery, one meant to boost confidence in election results in an era when faith in those results is under assault.

It also may be the most thankless one. Whatever chicanery or voter suppression is part of American politics, there is not that much of it that goes on in plain sight as people vote, and the mere fact that a monitor is watching makes it all the more unlikely that any will occur.

“Just having a presence of some sort is a deterrent for probably 80 percent of the bad behavior that’s going to happen,” Josh Helton, an adviser to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington in February.

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Keep up with Election 2020

Mr. Helton, who claimed without evidence that fraud by Democrats was widespread, said the senatorial committee helped recruit 2,000 Republican poll watchers to monitor precincts in Philadelphia during the 2016 general election — including 97 precincts where the Republican candidate for president in 2012, Mitt Romney, did not net a single vote.

ImageA poll watcher in Nashville in 2016. Precincts often are staffed with watchers from both parties.
Credit…Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Their role got a moment of notoriety this spring, when the Republican National Committee pledged to deploy 50,000 poll watchers in presidential battleground states for the 2020 general election. They were part of what Justin Clark, the senior counsel to the committee, called “a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better funded program” to advance Republican interests there.

Republicans tend to talk more about the need for monitors, but precincts often are staffed with watchers from both parties. Many are lawyers, chosen and sometimes paid by state or local party officials or candidates for office. But not always: The requirements vary widely from state to state, and are not limited to party officials or party representatives.

There are academic observers — researchers gathering information for studies — and even foreign observers gauging the fairness of voting here. In some places, civic groups can select monitors. Far from being required to have legal experience, watchers in some states can be as young at 14.

The duties vary as well. Some states allow watchers to challenge the eligibility of voters to cast ballots; others, including Pennsylvania, give that right only to separate challengers named by candidates or parties. A handful of states limit the right to challenge a voter’s credentials to election officials.

Regardless, the rules frequently give monitors scant leeway to assert themselves. For starters, not anyone can do the job; applicants must be vetted and usually trained by their sponsors before election officials grant them access to polling places. Self-appointed poll watches cannot just walk in and surveil polling places.

Many states prevent monitors from talking to voters or otherwise interfering in balloting. North Carolina imposes criminal penalties for making a frivolous charge that a voter is ineligible. In many cases, a monitor’s first step after suspecting an irregularity is not to cry foul, but to call party lawyers or local election officials, so they can address the problem.

Tina Walls, a Las Vegas lawyer who was a Democratic Party poll monitor in 2012, said she planned to do it again on Election Day. “With all the threats we’ve heard about on social media, I’m concerned that people will feel intimidated about voting,” she said. “If there’s anything I can do to help that and make sure that all ballots are counted, that’s the most important thing to me.”

Ms. Walls said her 2012 stint ended without a single question about a voter’s eligibility. This year, she said, she is less worried about voter fraud than about the impartiality of novice poll workers replacing older ones deterred from serving because of the pandemic.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

There can be motivations on both sides.

Almost daily for the past two weeks, Pauline Lee, a retired lawyer and Republican Party monitor in Las Vegas, has spent four hours behind a glass partition at the center that processes mail ballots for the Clark County Election Department, straining to watch workers verify absentee votes.

“I’m doing this because I smell something wrong,” she said, citing local reports of absentee ballots sent to inactive voters and piled in the lobbies of apartment houses. Her concerns were heightened, she said, after the state’s Democratic Legislature approved a law allowing outsiders to collect absentee ballots for delivery to election offices.

“I’m very concerned about election integrity,” she said. “To me it’s not a Republican issue; it’s a democracy issue. I think it’s going to speak volumes in the future about how our democracy is breaking down.”

Ms. Lee said her watchdog role had been hamstrung by hostility from officials at the processing center and a limited ability to see what workers are doing. Binoculars and picture-taking cellphones are barred by rules shielding the privacy of opened ballot envelopes, and some aspects of ballot verification took place out of sight, she claimed.

Even so, she said, she noticed that workers responding to machine breakdowns were “running ballots two or three times through the same machine,” adding “Would you be concerned? How would that work?”

Last week the Trump campaign and Nevada Republicans filed a lawsuit calling for a halt in processing mail ballots, saying restrictions like those Ms. Lee cited had made “meaningful observation” of the ballot-verifying process impossible. Election officials deny the charge; Democrats called the suit a thinly veiled effort to suppress votes in the state’s largest and most Democratic County.

That fits with assertions by some Democrats and voting rights advocates that the Republican stress on poll-watching this year is just one facet of a broader voter-suppression effort. That should not be true, said Justin Levitt, who oversaw voting laws in the Justice Department during the Obama administration.

“Done right, it’s not the sinister, suppressive or intimidating thing it’s been cast to be,” he said. “The vast majority of the time, voters don’t notice they’re there, and poll watchers get thoroughly bored in the first half hour.”

Which is perfectly OK. In polling places, as in firehouses, he added, you want it to be “the most boring job on the planet.”


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